Ag News

ARS study sheds light on beef environmental footprint

An Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-led team has completed a comprehensive life-cycle analysis quantifying the resource use and environmental emissions of beef cattle production in the United States. The aim is to establish baseline measures that the U.S. beef industry can use to explore ways of reducing its environmental footprint and improve sustainability.

The team's analysis encompassed an array of different types of cattle operations, reflecting a beef supply chain that’s among the most complex food production systems in the world. The study began in 2013 and included data from seven cattle-producing regions and 2,270 survey responses and site visits nationwide.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association provided a portion of the funding for the study. The team began its beef life-cycle analysis in 2013 and published the first of two sets of results in the January 2019 issue of the journal Agricultural Systems.

Among the results to emerge thus far:

- The seven regions’ combined beef cattle production accounted for only 3.3 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, transportation and electricity generation together made up 56 percent of the total in 2016 and agriculture in general 9 percent.

- Fossil fuel use in cattle production accounted for less than 1 percent of the total consumed nationally.

- Cattle only consumed 2.6 pounds of grain per pound of butchered beef, which was comparable to pork and poultry.

- Beef operations in the Northwest and Southern Plains had the highest total water use (60 percent combined) of the seven regions analyzed. Irrigating crops to produce feed for cattle accounted for 96 percent of total water use across all the regions.

“We found that the greenhouse gas emissions in our analysis were not all that different from what other credible studies had shown and were not a significant contributor to long-term global warming,” said ARS Agricultural Engineer Alan Rotz, who led the study.

Two areas for potential improvement are water use and reactive nitrogen losses. Water use is increased in the West where U.S. beef cattle are concentrated. Reactive nitrogen losses attributed to bee production (15 percent of the U.S. total) come mainly in the form of ammonia, which can lead to smog, acid rain and algal blooms.

The purpose of the analysis wasn't to identify the top-performing regions or most efficient types of operations, said Rotz, but rather to systematically measure the use of fuel, feed, forage, electricity, water, fertilizer and other inputs to raise beef cattle throughout the country—from birth to slaughter.

In the next six months, the team will combine the results of its analysis with postharvest data from other sectors of the beef supply chain—namely, processing, packing, distribution, retail, consumption and waste handling.

Together, these data will be used to generate a national assessment of the beef industry's resource use, economics, net losses of GHG and other emissions, providing a critical tool for sustainably producing beef, an important source of lean protein and nutrients.